All Stressed Up with No Place to Go

By the Duke Talent Identification Program

“The truly creative mind in any field is no more than this: a human creature born abnormally, inhumanly sensitive. To him, a touch is a blow, a sound is a noise, a misfortune is a tragedy, a joy is an ecstasy, a friend is a lover, a lover is a god, and failure is death.” —Pearl S. Buck

I used to think that it helped someone who felt stressed to be told to “chill out” or that “everything will seem better in the morning.” On reflection, however, I realized that when someone uttered those words to me, they did not help at all. By downplaying the raw feeling of powerlessness that often accompanies stress, we merely discount the reality of this corrosive condition. Nothing changes; the stress remains.

And who knows stress better than gifted kids? They are supposed to know it all and be it all: make perfect grades, show exemplary behavior, set and reach ambitious goals. Just imagine the reaction when the school’s top achiever gets an average score on the SAT or the kid who appears to have it all together breaks down when his girlfriend dumps him. The people who matter most—parents, teachers, classmates—often reveal shock or disappointment that “someone so smart” fell short of the mark or had an emotional reaction that would be “natural” for anyone else.

Joanne Rand Whitmore has proposed that two overlooked qualities of gifted people are supersensitivity and perfectionism. Ironically, these traits appear in both high and low achievers. The supersensitivity often shows itself in acute awareness of others’ expectations and in profound disappointment when these standards are not met. Its corollary, perfectionism, is the gifted student’s attempt to avoid this disappointment by not allowing himself or herself to be less than number 1. The perceptive student realizes that it is often preferable to fail outright by not turning in homework than to fail to attain maximum success on that homework—say, by earning only a B—even after giving it the most strenuous effort.

Although there are no easy solutions to the problem of stress, there are ways to lessen the toll it takes:

Have Fun with Stress

I often ask my students to write down all of the things in life that cause them stress: relationships, grades, their physical appearance, their athletic performance, and so on. Then I ask them to wad up the paper on which they have just written and throw it at me. (They love this part.) Why does that last part feel so good? I ask. Because, they say, it allows them to do something with their stress, if only temporarily, by tossing it away in some concrete action. Next, we compile lists of things we can do when stress is at a peak, from listening to music to taking deep breaths to stroking a cat to screaming into a pillow. The students copy these lists and keep them in their notebooks. This accomplishes three things. First, it shows them that the stresses they feel are common. Second, it gives them some realistic, though temporary, ways to manage stress. Third, it begins a discussion of such time-tested techniques as doing the hardest project first, limiting the time spent on a project, and taking a stretch break every 30 minutes or so.

Review the Intensities That Gifted People Feel

The loneliest feeling in the world is to think that you are the first and only person to feel intense pressure. The books listed in the sidebar can be used to teach students about the emotional commonalities among the gifted and to show them that all famous people have made mistakes along the way.

Confront the Sources of Stress

Students who feel that their parents consider them failures because they have made only the junior varsity team, or who believe that their algebra teacher expects them to know everything, even without instruction, need to have a heart-to-heart talk. Role-playing in a school setting (preferably with older gifted students playing the part of the adult) can suggest strategies that students need to face their “accuser” in a nonthreatening way.

It is probably impossible not be stressed to some degree. Whether the demon we fear is across the globe or in our psyche, the stress it causes is still stress. By addressing the reality of everyday stressors and then focusing on some of the ones that tend to be more visible in the gifted, we open a door to dialogue about this vital issue. That in itself is a relief.

—James R. Delisle, PhD

James R. Delisle is professor of education at Kent State University and a part-time teacher of gifted students in Twinsburg, Ohio.

Further Reading
  • Barefoot Irreverence: A Guide to Critical Issues in Gifted Child Education, by James R. Delisle, Prufrock, 2002
  • Early Gifts: Recognizing and Nurturing Your Young Child’s Talent, by Paula Olszewski-Kubilious, Lisa Limburg, and Steven Pfeiffer, Prufrock, 2002
  • The Gifted Kids’ Survival Guide: A Teen Handbook, by Judy Galbraith and James R. Delisle, edited by Pamela Espeland, Free Spirit, 1996
  • Giftedness, Conflict, and Underachievement, by Joanne Rand Whitmore, Allyn and Bacon, 1980
  • Love That Dog, by Sharon Creech, HarperCollins, 200
  • Perfectionism: What’s Bad about Being Too Good? by Miriam Adderholdt and Jan Goldberg, edited by Caryn Pernu, Free Spirit, 1999
  • The Road to Success Is Paved with Failure, by Joey Green, Little, Brown, 2001
  • When Gifted Kids Don’t Have All the Answers: How to Meet Their Social and Emotional Needs, by James R. Delisle and Judy Galbraith, edited by Pamela Espeland, Free Spirit, 2002
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